Blockbusterism (reprinted from Visual Art Source,com, February 24.2020)


When Too Much is Not Enough
by DeWitt Cheng

In 1961, the conservative mandarin and pundit William F. Buckley wrote “Why Don’t We Complain,” an essay lamenting the indifference of Americans to mediocrity and slovenliness. Buckley had taken a New Year’s vow: “Henceforward I would conquer my shyness, my despicable disposition to supineness. I would speak out like a man against the unnecessary annoyances of our time.” I recently reread it, and — spoiler alert! — find resonances with our current political and cultural plight. 

 

But wait, you say: is there too much silent stoicism in the bitterly divided Trump era? Well, yes, in certain areas.

 

A few days ago, I traipsed over to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to catch “Soft Power,” an intriguingly named international exhibition of twenty-odd artists dealing the with the themes of history, memory and sociopolitics. Like other large thematic group shows presented lately — SFMOMA’s “China,” a modernist/postmodernist survey show a while back, and Berkeley Art Museums’ “Strange” show — it contained many works of great merit, some even unforgettable. My lament about these blockbusters, however, is that they are diluted by being too large and compendious. The bulk of so-so works dilute and overpower the effect of the better ones, like Michael Bloomberg’s ads drowning out their competitions through sheer volume.

 

Shows that try to be everything to everyone tend to end up less forceful or memorable than judiciously selected works from fewer and better artists. I suspect that one of the main factors explaining the curatorial sprawl is the current lack of consensus on what the most consequential art is and what makes it so. The expansion of aesthetic choices in art over the past fifty years has been fruitful, not only expanding the creative playing field, but also expanding visual art’s audience. It looks more like America now.

 

This expansion, so like the proliferation of digital media, has come with a dilution of power and effect, even as it has evolved into a $50+ billion dollar economic sector: the art industry. For many museum goers today, it is a mildly benevolent form of entertainment, bolstered by a patina of self-improvement and social benevolence. This conclusion lends credence to the prediction of cultural critic Alfred Kazin a half century ago that art would decline to the level of shopping or sports. Brave new world, alphas and betas! In our current fraught situation, can anyone plausibly defend Maurizio Cattelan’s $120,000 duct-taped banana at Art Basel, “Comedian,” so formally similar to the Communist hammer and sickle designed by Yevgeny Ivanovich Kamzolkin (1885–1957)?

 

Edgar Allan Poe wrote in “The Philosophy of Composition” about the need for an aesthetic “unity of effect” in a literary work of art. Nearly two hundred years later, after the creative destructions of one art history movement after another, there is still something to be said for works of art that say one thing, forcefully, over works that say many things, half-heartedly and notionally, relying on what we might call the Bloombergian shotgun effect. Can works of art and exhibitions be complex and contradictory? Of course they can, but not indiscriminately, as is the case with the omnium-gatherium blockbusters or surveys. Let curators curate from an understanding of individual artworks and a narrative through-line. Use the catalogue essays, commissioned at some expense, form the outline. Don’t set out to amuse or patronize audiences, or flatter our prejudices or ignorance. Educate us, challenge us, thrill us, astonish us. We demand it; we accept no substitutes. Shows with narrative theses and overarching ideas are also more interesting to review, I might add, than concatenations of objects that are not particularly connected aesthetically.

 

I give Buckley the last word: “I think the observable reluctance of the majority of Americans to assert themselves in minor matters is related to our increased sense of helplessness in an age of technology and centralized political and economic power. For generations, Americans who were too hot, or too cold, got up and did something about it. Now we call the plumber, or the electrician, or the furnace man. The habit of looking after our own needs obviously had something to do with the assertiveness that characterized the American family familiar to readers of American literature. With the technification of life goes our direct responsibility for our material environment, and we are conditioned to adopt a position of helplessness.”

Frances Lerner: "After All" at Gallery Commonweal, Bolinas CA

Frances Lerner: After All

Gallery Commonweal

451 Mesa Road, Bolinas CA

November 20, 2019 - January 9, 2020

The purpose of art is mystery.—René Magritte

Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights and certain places—all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Wall and the Books”

 You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.—Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2

American culture these days valorizes dichotomous thinking and polemical extremism as proof of seriousness and commitment, and balance (or compromise) is seen as inferior—tainted by compromise. The worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats says. When we eventually regain our sanity, perhaps the values of reasonableness and balance will again come to the fore.

The poetic, introspective art of Frances Lerner, of modest scale and subdued color, eschews the gaudy assertiveness of art-fair art, and exemplifies the values of synthesis and seriousness. Lerner’s paintings, prints, and assemblages (including her recent wool sculptures and paintings) tread the knife-edge between innovation and tradition with a sure foot; they’re mysterious, and preserve their mystery, but never descend into theatricality or flummery. They never “saw the air” with overwrought drama, like bad actors (either Shakespearean or Congressional).

After All surveys the past decade of Lerner’s work from four series, which are not displayed chronologically or thematically. Despite the stylistic differences, and the time-tripping into which viewers find themselves, the effect is not as jarring as mught have been expected Lerner’s compelling and consistent sensibility links everything, so the effect is less cacophonous than dialogic; the sibling works speak to each other.



There Once Was A World, with its fairy-tale or fantasy title, comprises small paintings depicting puppetlike figures in circumstances that are unclear but intriguing. Lerner: “The main puppet, Lorelei, possibly an alter ego, is my metaphor for perplexity, paradox, and a woman’s predicament’; she is a “peasant, immigrant, orphan or artist in any sweatshop, factory or studio,” balancing inner-driven creativity and everyday practicality, to keep body and soul alive. The loreleis of German folklore were alluring river sirens that tempted sailors to their deaths, so Lerner is using the term ironically, perhaps hinting at majority cultures not only exploit but, adding insult to injury, demonize their victims. Minus that sociopolitical analysis, the paintings, inspired by a puppet that the artist purchased at a flea market, can also be read as commentary on the human condition; we’re all caught between assertion and powerlessness, like Hamlet’s fellow creatures, crawling between heaven and earth. “Lorelei and the Witch” (2007-8), “Lorelei’s Earthship” (2008), “Working Woman #1,” “Working Woman #2,” and “Working Woman #3” (all 2008), “Family” (2006), and “Oeuvre” (2008-9) depict Lerner’s troupe of puppet actors with varying degrees of pictorial clarity, with “Lorelei and the Witch” and “Stroll” depicting ghostly vertical presences, while “Working Woman #1”and “Family” define the forms clearly, but still enigmatically. Implicit in all of these images is a sense of magic metamorphosis, of matter come to life, but also vulnerable to dissolution and disintegration: liminal, or between stable states, to use the current phrase. Lerner’s fine draftsmanship and sense of form hold these tonal paintings—grisaille, with superadded color glazes—together.  WIth their subdued palettes and focus on the mysterious inner life of objects, these paintings are in a line of descent from Giorgio Morandi and perhaps Edwin Dickinson.



In Minor Characters and Sympathetic Criminals, Lerner expands her cast of characters beyond Lorelei and her family, to suggest narratives, albeit complicated and enriched by the artist’s abstract shreds-and-patches (to quote The Bard, again) patterning and color relationships. The enigmatic dramas of “Loom-Weavers” (2011-12), “Sympathetic Criminals” (2010-12),. “Benches 2”( 2011), “Benches 3” (2011), “Occupied Couple” (2011), “Saddled Head” (2011-12) and “Family Business” (2012) also feature larger architectural spaces, suggesting stage sets. In “Loom-Weavers,” the tapestry apparatus is generalized to abstract sculpture, almost architecture, while the woven branchlike patterning on a loom in the background carries over into the window traceries and even the ceiling. In “Sympathetic Criminals,” Lorelei sits slumped in a corner, hands upraised,  accompanied by a doll-like male companion in an indeterminate uniform who stands and regards her; occupying the left foreground is a large cloth or quilt of patchwork resembling window mullions and stanchions, a motif that recurs in “Occupied Couple.” “Family Business” depicts Lorelei and a small girl, both wearing headscarves, making their furtive way through an ambiguous space littered by vessels and spars that suggests both factory and stage, with a painted backdrop (or is it a large window?), abutted by a riser (or bed?), revealing a generalized cluster of buildings.





The Unlikely Companions series has an unlikely title, since the figures that formerly populated Lerner’s enigmatic dramas now disappear, with the semi-abstract backgrounds coming to the fore. Lerner: “For somewhat unknown reasons, I began buying old bellows, drawn both by the way they operate, feeding the fire with air [, and] the bellows’ rounded petal forms and angular shapes (similar in some ways to the misshapen Lorelei).... [M]y impulse was to pull the ...bellows apart and reunite them, forming a sort of hybrid.” The anthropomorphic bellows, which breathe and vocalize, appears in a transitional work, “The Arrest” (2015), with the huddled puppet couple, hands up in a shrug or surrender, beginning to unravel, as the background space obtrudes. Later works from this series—“Nineteen Sixty-Nine” (2013), “Syzygy” (2013-14), “CInders” (2014), “Locomotive”(2014-15), “Fortune” (2014-15), “Underground” (2015), “Puppet Torso Armor” (2015), and “Bees”( 2015-16)—read as mechanistic abstractions in the Dada-Cubist-Futurist style, with echoes of Duchamp and Picabia, but done in Lerner’s muted brown-gray palette and velvet-soft painting strokes: intimist metaphysical subversion, reminiscent of San Francisco’s Gordon Cook. During this period, Lerner began exploring unorthodox materials—wool, cast concrete, and found objects—in sculptures and wall collages or assemblages that add materiality to her concerns with time and mortality. “Cinders” (2014), “March” (2015), “Dickensonian” (2015-16), and “Bee Bellows” (2015-16) are probably influenced by the contemporary interest in abjection, but Lerner’s balancing of form, drama, and psychology keeps these small works, as well as the untitled “wool paintings” from this period, from the easy one-note irony to which other artists succumb.

Since 2016, Lerner has returned to figuration (at least her idiosyncratic version of figuration), working in oil on paper. “Garret” (2017-19), “Work Break” (2018), “Rollers” (2018-19), “ and “Waiting Room (2018-19) evoke the animated-matter imagery of the Minor Characters period, while “Headquarters Blossom” (2017-19) recalls the moody abstractions of the Unlikely Companions period. “Horses” (2018-19) and “Blue Horses” (2019) add an equine motif, perhaps an homage to that painter of spiritualized animals, Franz Marc? Concomitant with this return to the artist’s psychic homeland is a new direction. Lerner became interested needle felting, which is transfixing crumpled felt repeatedly with a threaded needle until it assumes a complicated and unpredictable form. Deconstructing hats, Lerner creates small sculptures like “Slice” (2016) that retain, despite its minimalist form, some vestige of human use and life.

In an era when art seems to have become thoroughly corporatized and commodified, mere easy fun, Frances Lerner’s practice stands for the value of self-expression and meaning. It is not “standing athwart history yelling Stop” (to quote WiIliam F. Buckley’s trope on opposing the stampede of New Deal liberalism), but, to those who believe art can and should be a serious affair, as Anselm Kiefer has declared, it’s heartening. Make art great again.

 

 

In Plain Sight at Mills College Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthy, December 2019)

 

All Systems Go

In Plain Sight, at Mills College Art Museum (MCAM), focuses, as you would suspect from the title,  on the hidden systems that underlie and override the lives of our overly tech-reliant and even addicted citizenry. Guest-curated by the Berkeley Art Center’s Daniel Nevers, the show features multimedia and mixed-media works with a conceptual, cross-disciplnary bent by Los Angeles’ Kathryn Andrews, the San Francisco artist team of castaneda/reiman, Houston’s Dario Robleto, and SF’s Weston Teruya. Considering the amount of deciphering required by current politics and business, exemplified in Facebook’s hands-off approach to fake-news political messaging and PG&E’s feckless fire-and-fury mismanagement of its infrastructure, the covert operations and overt corruption running the show in the background are long overdue for scrutiny by a ‘woke’ populace.

Andrews’ “Black Bars: Wolverine Woolverton,” with its reference to redactions, Bill Barr’s or not, is a large plexiglas box or vitrine containing an assemblage of random pop-culture images about always-exciting violence; the action-movie and underground-cartoon imagery is obscured beneath two large black rectangles, screen-printed onto the plexiglas, that have the commanding presence of monoliths, ancient steles, or Richard Serra’s steel plates. Other pieces are more puzzling, requiring insider knowledge of the LA art scene, and so less forceful in their critique. Castaneda/reiman’s investigation of the cultural/institutional landscape goes behind the scenes here with large, carefully composed color photographs of MCAM’s painting racks, seen in elevation view, like a 1960s stripe painting. and a shot of shelved figurines, with their outlines and catalogue numbers traced on the underlying ethafoam padding as Magrittean visual/verbal shadows or equivalents. Robleto explores the history of science with 3D-printed renditions of an 1870 waveform of bloodflow from stressed and unstressed hearts, displayed like holy relics, albeit in modern minimalist style; and a Wunderkammer treasure-trove vitrine full of shells, teeth and spines. Weston Teruya crafts sculptures of humble domestic objects—locks, gates, rakes and brooms—from ‘lowly’ recycled materials and photographs, demonstrating again that aesthetic worth, like moral character, trumps luxury and pretentiousness.

A catalog is available in print, or online at the museum website. In Plain Sight runs through December 8; Mills College Art Museum, 11:00-4:00 T-Sun (till 7:30 W), (510) 430-2164; mcam.mills.edu. —DeWitt Cheng 

castaneda/reiman Research photo of object storage shelves at Mills College Art Museum, 2019. Courtesy of the artists.

Dario Robledo Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas, 2017-2018. Cut and polished nautilus shells, various cut and polished seashells, various urchin spines and teeth, mushroom coral, green and white tusks, squilla claws, butterfly wings, colored pigments and beads, colored crushed glass and glitter, dyed mica flakes, pearlescent paint, cut paper, acrylic domes, brass rods, colored mirrored Plexiglas, glue, maple. 75 x 71.5 x 43 inches Courtesy of the artist and Inman Gallery, Houston. Photo: Jena Jackson. Detail of photo is shown.

Weston Teruya Casting shadows, 2019. Found trash, photographs. 7 x 6.5 x 3.5 inches  Photo: courtesy of the artist. Detail of the photo is shown.


 

James Tissot: Fashion and Faith at Legion of Honor, San Francisco (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, 10/18/19)

The Beauty/Truth Problem

In Thomas Mann’s final, unfinished novel, The Confessions of Felix Krull, the young confidence-man protagonist—antihero is too strong a word—recounts that his father, an elderly roué, took great pleasure in merely reciting the words, les jolies femmes. I was repeatedly reminded of this deplorable but comical figure as I perused the glittering, splendidly painted depictions of haute bourgeois leisure in the San Francisco Legion of Honor’s current exhibition, James Tissot: Fashion & Faith.

Tissot (1836-1902), né Jacques Joseph Tissot, in the port city of Nantes, was the son of a wealthy drapery merchant, but decided as a teenager to forsake the family business, to his father’s chagrin. This defiance of paternal expectations, however, turned out well, as Tissot’s career took off immediately. His blending of classical Ingrist realism and Romantic literary subject matter in The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite (1860), possibly influenced by the antimodernist English Pre-Raphaelites, garnered the twenty-four year old artist a 5000-franc purchase from the French government.




In the early 1860s Tissot abandoned historicizing imagery to focus on the depiction of his contemporaries—Baudelaire’s “heroism of modern life”— although his subject matter in portraits and semi-narrative paintings remained the wealthy upper classes with which he was socially connected. In 1871, he inexplicably (considering his conservative Catholic background) fought on the side of the Paris Commune; and when the rebels were exterminated by the government, he sensibly relocated to London (as some other leftist artists did), where his virtuosic paintings of exquisitely turned out jolies femmes, both French and English, found favor with British industrialists. In 1872, the thirty-something painter earned nearly 100,000 francs—the wages of a merchant prince of the day. Tissot knew the Impressionists—Degas painted his portrait—but kept his distance from them professionally, and stylistically, for the most part. He shared their interest in Japanese culture, however, filling his large manorial home in London (in bohemian St. John’s Wood) with exotic collectibles that found their way into his paintings, as did his lordly home and its grounds.





The exhibition is well organized, presenting a clear picture of the artist’s development (though it’s curiously lacking in his voice), and beautifully presented— a visual delight, but not an emotional one, despite the drama of Tissot losing his youthful muse, La Mystérieuse, Kathleen Newton, to tuberculosis (‘consumption’) and his subsequent embrace of séances and spiritualism, and painting, in his sixties, with mostly undistinguished results, Christianity’s Greatest Story Ever Told. If Robert Hughes once opined that Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross were no match for Titian’s, it’s fair to note that Tissot’s spooky illustrations of the Passion are no competition for Michelangelo or Piero della Francesca. A few other qualifications are in order: Tissot’s drawing is sometimes off the mark, with disconnected body parts emerging from the extravagant costumery without evoking the body underneath, and it sometimes even verges on the caricatural (“Painters and Their Wives,”); his restrained but knowing satires of the lower orders now look dated and elitist (“Provincial Woman,” “Too Early,” “London Visitors”): and the scenarios that he depicts are sometimes lacking in realistic space or lighting; they look assembled from various parts, without the rhythmic unity and grouping of the Renaissance painters like Carpaccio, an early influence (“Departure of the Prodigal Son” and “Return of the Prodigal Son” from 1862-3; “Rue Royale”).



That said, Tissot’s apotheoses of young, attractive, wealthy women—continental Gibson Girls— record Belle Époque Europe with the discerning eye of a tailor or seamstress (due to his family background) and a master showman’s delight in painted spectacle, with Tissot’s extraordinary attention to detail undoubtedly a compelling selling point for patrons used to hard-headed cost analysis. (Four of the paintings, all of high quality, now belong to San Francisco grandees.) “Safe to Win,” “The Fan,” “Young Women Looking at the Chinese Temple,”  “Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects,” “Portrait of Mlle L.L.” and “Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon” are stunning works of indisputable, irresistible charm and verve. Tissot’s more poetic, spiritualized, gauzy, stagy images, tending toward kitsch, are less successful, at least to contemporary taste.






The problem for a contemporary MeToo audience, naturally, lies not in the aesthetic realm but the sociopolitical one, depicting, as they do, women as delicate, decorative beings, however gloriously painted. It’s unfair to judge the past too harshly by present standards, which seems to be a popular blood sport among irate Procrustean virtue-signalers these days, but the nineteenth-century status of women has to be considered in the case of Tissot—who was one of many artists engaged in what could called the Male Gaze market. (See Peter Schjeldahl’s recent take in The New Yorker on Renoir.) Bram Dijkstra in Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture, postulates that bourgeois women of that time, uneducated, confined and cosseted, were seen as the repositories of Christian virtue and innocence in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalist competition; and that when they fell short of that unrealistic Hedda Gabler baby-woman pedestal, they were misogynistically transformed into the harpies, vampires and succubi of Symbolist art: ancestresses of America’s castrating woman politicians running pedophile rings from pizza parlors. The truth is not always beautiful, nor is beauty always truthful: teachable moments for an audience addicted to glamor (etymologically, a magic spell), sensationalist drama, and low-rent entertainment.  —DeWitt Cheng

http://www.visualartsource.com/index.php?page=editorial&pcID=22&aID=5414

Jenny Wantuch: "Water Stories" in Throckmorton Theatre, Mill Valley, to January 4, 2020

“Lakeview”, 36x48 inches, Acrylic, oil and gold leaf on panel, 2018

“Water Stories”
December 3, 2019-January 4, 2020
Throckmorton Theatre
142 Throckmorton Ave
Mill Valley, CA 94941
415.383.9600
throckmortontheatre.com
 Tue-Sat 2-6pm and during shows


Catalogue essay from a year or two ago.

JENNY M.L. WANTUCH: The Painterly Eye

Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one’s sensations.—Paul Cézanne

We must not be content to memorize the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors. Let us go out and study beautiful nature.—Paul Cézanne

     

In the mid-nineteenth-century, as industrialization began to transform the American landscape, painters took upon themselves the task of preserving in art what civilization and Manifest Destiny were quickly eroding. One Hudson River painter, Jasper Cropsey, wrote, in 1847:

The axe of civilization is busy with our old forests, and artisan ingenuity is fast sweeping away the relics of our national infancy.... What were once the wild and picturesque haunts of the Red Man, and where the wild deer roamed in freedom, are becoming the abodes of commerce and the seats of manufactures.... Yankee enterprise has little sympathy with the picturesque, and it behooves our artists to rescue from its grasp the little that is left, before it is too late.”

If Cropsey could not bring himself to condemn industrial progress with the scorn of his contemporary, the Romantic, antiquarian, pessimist J.M.W. Turner, who famously condemned England’s “dark satanic mill, “ his words still ring true in the age of global capitalism, American-style—although the natural world even in its diminished present state continues to inspire plein-air (i.e., open-air, outdoor, onsite) artists who seek unspoiled areas for their calm beauty.

Jenny Margareta Linnéa Wantuch (who uses the signature JMLW) is known for her colorful landscape paintings of the San Francisco Bay Area, done in oil or gouache. A native of Stockholm, Sweden, and reared in a farming family, Wantuch grew up with a love of nature and a passion for creativity that was encouraged early by her family and art teachers. After earning a chemistry degree in Uppsala, and a decade of working as an environmental engineer in the Swedish pharmaceutical industry, she moved to the Bay Area in 2001 for a job in the Biotech industry. Enrolled in graduate school at Berkeley, however, she discovered that her old interest in art would not be denied. She took a career detour, studying with the Bay Area artists Jude Pittman and Deb Rumer, among others. Wantuch’s semi-abstract landscape paintings savor the natural beauty of her adopted home—including, at times, the dynamism of San Francisco’s urban scene—and have met with increasing recognition and success. Today, she is a busy, respected emerging artist with a lengthy record of achievement and acclaim. 

Wantuch works primarily outdoors, “hiking a bit with ... extra luggage,” as she puts it, dealing with wind, fog and bugs, in order to confront what the hiker Cézanne called, ‘the motif’ directly, in all its messy reality, referring to photographs only when necessary. “I ... rely on my direct observation, which means I take careful notes of colors and design. I believe that by painting from life, I grow as an artist, I learn from what I see. In the studio, I use my plein-air paintings as reference for large-scale paintings.” While Wantuch paints in color patches, like Cézanne, rather than modeling objects in space, three-dimensionally, i.e., “copying the object,” in Cézanne’s words, she employs flat interlocking shapes rather like irregular puzzle pieces—or the varicolored counties and countries in geographic maps. Wantuch’s bright, pure, Fauve colors, absorbed as a totality, as if from a distance, convey the light and landscape of the northern California landscape with a rigorous economy of means that recalls the pointillism of Seurat and his circle. Her modernist Arcadian views of California—e.g., Wild Mustard in Inverness, Creek in Half Moon Bay, Princeton Beach, Spring at Crystal Spring, Reflections at Stanislaus River—capture and preserve the Golden State’s clear, white light and scenic vistas, still alive and well in our ‘late-capitalist’ era of Yankee enterprise.

1 Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875, Thames and Hudson, 1980, p.5


“The Light Between”, 43x36 inches, oil on panel, 2018


“Sound of Water”, 48x36 inches, oil on panel, 2018


“Pond Reflections I”, 30x10 inches, casein on clay board, 2019

“The Four Seasons”, 4 panels 24x6 inches each, casein on clay board, 2019